Proportional Representation Is Showing Results in California’s Democratic Presidential Race

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Bernie Sanders campaigned in Chico and opened an office in Bakersfield.

 Pete Buttigieg toured the Central Valley.

Mike Bloomberg hit Stockton and Fresno.

Proportional representation election systems, a reform I’ve long championed, have been dismissed as unrealistic in California. But in this presidential primary season, PR is being quietly tried out, and there are signs that, unlike so many political reforms in the state, it’s actually working.

Proportional representation systems try to allow representation—in this case delegates—based on the percentage of the vote. Under the Democratic rules, delegates are awarded in each Congressional district based on a proportional system. 

Proportional representation systems, especially when built around the districts, encourage politicians to compete for every vote everywhere—instead of sticking to places where more of their base voters are. That’s why you see Democratic politicians coming to California not merely to raise money, but to campaign in our less populous regions.

 Unfortunately, most California elections don’t work this way. In fact, California abolished party primaries when it adopted top two (even if the media and state officials still call March elections “primaries). And we don’t elect people proportionally. Each legislative district elects just one person, so you can’t divide votes up.

What’s exciting about the Democratic presidential primaries—at least for those of us who aren’t Democrats—is that they provide a live counter-example to the state’s anti-primary, anti-proportional consensus. If this primary succeeds, maybe we could extend its lessons to our own regular state elections.

 

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